Making Things in Massachusetts
We’ve spent a lot of time at Boston Home tracking down local manufacturers of residential products. There are plenty of artisans (that’s the good news), but it’s harder to find big shops cranking out multiples — you know, the way they used to do it around here.
Which is why I was extremely intrigued when I got a flier from DIGMA (Design Industry Group of Massachusetts) announcing a conference called Mass. Made, exploring that state of local industry. Bracing myself for bad news, I took the train over to the Gillette World Shaving Headquarters in South Boston where, you might be surprised to hear, they still make razors. I mean, it’s a real factory, complete with emergency warnings, hardhats, and workers.
The conference kicked off with a glowing report from Northeastern professor Barry Bluestone (who presciently authored The Deindustrialization of America in 1982) and whose recent study revealed that manufacturing is alive and well in this state, increasing revenue over the decade and holding strong as an economic driver. Further, Bluestone maintains, as labor and transportation costs increase overseas, things are only going to get better right here. That’s what I’ve been saying, but I’m not a highfalutin’ prof.
Then followed presentations by those brave manufacturers themselves including Kathleen Fulton, co-founder of Taza Chocolates in Somerville. Taza is the only company in the US to offer organic, stone ground, direct trade chocolate — and that’s the key to their success. Fulton (who, against all laws of chocolate making, is very thin) explains that if you’re going to compete on the home turf, you won’t win on price, so be sure to provide a niche product that no one else offers. And just to drive her point home, she had samples of her orange, chipotle, ginger, and cacao puro bars on-hand. Eat up, kids, and enjoy that excellent Somerville stock.
Another highlight was third-generation sheet manufacturer George Matouk. I kind of love his story. Based in Fall River, his grandfather’s company was heading for certain doom 1999 as a contract manufacturer, selling to Bed, Bath, and Beyond and the like. He couldn’t offer competitive pricing AND pay his employees, so it looked like the end was nigh. As a fresh Columbia MBA, Matouk the younger proposed plan B: go upscale, create a designer brand, and demand high prices for their unique product. Now Matouk is doing fine, offering high-end bedding and towels in boutiques around the country. And their stuff is really classy.
Now I’m going to get all political on you. While those “innovators” in Kendall are chasing down the next Facebook or finding new ways to trick us into buying more crap, maybe a few will realize that if we don’t make and sell actual stuff, there won’t be much money to move around the board. Manufacturing is messy business — there are a lot of moving parts and you can’t just park yourself in front of a computer all day — but it’s absolutely necessary. Here’s to producing tangible goods!